A committee of more than 20 teachers, parents, school administrators, students and community members are hoping that a series of short- and long-term recommendations it developed over the last several months will help Palo Alto Unified School District turn the page on its longstanding achievement gap.
The group's recommendations both small and big picture, short and long term strive to shift what the report describes as a "tale of two cities: a Palo Alto for a high-achieving majority of students, with access to enrichment opportunities and high expectations, and a Palo Alto in which access and expectations for students of color and students from lower-resourced backgrounds are limited."
Research, data analysis and focus groups conducted by the committee confirmed much of what is already known about the wide gap between low-income students and students of color and other Palo Alto student populations. The research showed lower levels of achievement in standardized test scores, GPA (grade-point average) and A-G subject requirements for the California state universities by socioeconomic status and for black and Latino students as compared to white and Asian students, according to the report.
The achievement gap by ethnicity also "occurred as robustly among students from highly educated, well-resourced backgrounds," the committee found. The committee also found that the level of proficiency in standardized tests in elementary school predicted A-G readiness in high school -- just under 50 percent of those who were below basic proficiency met A-G requirements versus more than 90 percent of those who were proficient or advanced.
And according to a survey the committee conducted, white and Asian students were more likely (63 percent) than students of color (26 percent) to feel that teachers sincerely care about the success of children of color. One Latina student told the committee: "Sometimes you have to like speak a little louder so they can hear you, and it shouldn't be like that."
Writing that it is "vitally important that students and parents not wait another year for tangible actions," the committee asks that the school board approve funding to implement 12 recommendations for the next school year.
At a high level, the committee recommends that the district develop a formal "equity plan" under the leadership of a new "equity coordinator" who would "serve as an ombudsperson for managing issues related to the education and well-being of historically underrepresented students and families," the report reads. This new hire, with an estimated cost of $130,000, is part of the committee's push for more comprehensive and systemic district accountability.
Viewing early education as a key to closing the achievement gap, the committee is also recommending that the district administer a diagnostic literacy and mathematics assessment starting in pre-kindergarten and through second grade. Tiered interventions and ongoing monitoring should be provided as necessary, the report reads. The committee also notes that administrators and teachers should have ready access to this student data, review it regularly and "use it meaningfully." (Data was another overarching theme in both the committee's own work and in its recommendations. The report asks the district to create a better system for obtaining, analyzing and reporting the data necessary to monitor student progress and report on results.)
Based on the results of the diagnostic assessment for kindergarten students, the district should provide an additional two days a week of extended or full-day kindergarten, the committee suggests. The district does not currently offer full-day kindergarten, but does have an extended day for all students two days a week.
At the middle and high school levels, the committee asks that there be "clear, objective, and well-communicated information about laning decisions and waivers in mathematics" to address what the report describes as a "significant divide" among students created by laning.
"For most underrepresented students, seventh-grade mathematics lane placement, which is determined by sixth-grade teachers on a district nine-point rubric and in-house placement test, restricts the opportunity to take higher level classes or even A/B Calculus in high school," the report reads. "In other words, students are disproportionately underrepresented in the more challenging high classes because of seventh-grade lane placement."
The report also recommends that the district launch a longitudinal study to analyze the impact of laning on historically underrepresented students and their peers.
During its months of work, the committee reviewed the myriad of intervention programs offered to Palo Alto students, both internally and externally, often agreeing that they need to be streamlined and better advertised to students and families. The committee recommends that the district commission an independent audit of current intervention programs to identify which are the most cost effective.
The top overarching "problem cluster" the group identified in its work is an "underlying and unconscious narrative of bias" that permeates the issues surrounding the achievement gap at every level. To begin to address this, the committee suggests the district launch staff development sessions on unconscious bias, with equity trainings for all staff every four to six years, and work to recruit, hire, retain and promote more diverse teachers and administrators. In the 2012-13 year, there were only 12 black and 39 Latino teachers out of 724 total teachers in the district.
A high school student told the committee that "diversity is only valued during holidays" and that in her entire time in the district, she "does not remember ever having a black male teacher," according to the report.
Parent engagement and education is also critical in closing the achievement gap, and turned up in the committee's second problem cluster: "quality and nature of parent-student-school-community connections." In focus groups and discussions with the community, the committee repeatedly heard from low-income parents and parents of color about the difficulty of learning "how to do school" in Palo Alto and an accompanying feeling of being disconnected to the school community.
Palo Alto should create a district-level parent advocate/liaison position who would supervise and monitor site-level parent advocates and liaisons, the committee suggests. The parent liaison at the site level will serve each school by increasing outreach to historically underrepresented families and creating opportunities for involvement. The committee also urges the district to collaborate with community-based parent groups that currently serve historically underrepresented families to improve parent engagement with the district.
With many more ambitious proposals, the report suggests the group continue as a standing district committee to oversee and strengthen its recommendations as they are implemented.
"Committee members also know that success will require sustained support at all levels of the system in homes and classrooms as well as offices and the board room and that, in addition to promising practices, the historically underrepresented students and families will be well-served by policies and a vision tied to strategic goals and measurable outcomes," the report notes.
The school board will discuss the full report at its Tuesday meeting, with funding requests to return for action on June 9. Tonight's meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave.